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THE AMERICANS -- The Oath

character study

TV’s Saddest Character: Martha on The Americans

Doesn't it seem like The Americans just started? It didn't. The show's thirteen-episode first season ends tonight, presumably with both bangs and whimpers. And let's be real: Some of those whimpers are going to have to come from Martha, the CIA secretary Phillip — in disguise as Clark — seduced to leak him information. Poor Martha, who thinks she and Clark are married. Married! She thinks they are married, but she cannot even tell that he is sleeping in a wig. Congratulations, lady, you are the saddest character on TV.

The Americans derives much of its drama from the fact that its characters know more than we do as the audience. They comfortably double-cross people and know all kinds of cool spy techniques and Russian secrets. They can compartmentalize emotions shockingly well, and their wig technology is clearly from the future. (How do you have that much vigorous sex without anyone pulling hair?) Except we know way more than Martha knows. We know Clark is fake. We know she's a pawn of the KGB. We know that every piece of information she tells Clark is going to be used to hurt people she cares about. We know her co-workers are in danger, we know who killed her ex-boyfriend, and we know this is going to end terribly.

That makes Martha seem pathetic, even though she's not, really. She's had her heart broken, and then along comes this caring, devoted guy — and it's naughty at first, because he's at her apartment for official government purposes (well, that's what she thinks, anyway). That's kind of great! That should be a cute love story! But The Americans doesn't hold romantic love in high regard. Love is bad news on The Americans — a nuisance at best, but more likely a liability.

And Martha is both of those to Phillip, a nuisance and a liability, and something of an emotional shield he can use against Elizabeth. Which means Martha is going to have to die. She's not a very good secret-keeper — she told her parents about Clark even though she promised not to — and people who know Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings have shortened average lifespans.

If The Americans makes brutal spy missions seem cool — and come on, it does — then Martha represents the cost of that coolness, the actual heartlessness it would require to carry on as Clark or even as Phillip. She clues us in to just how brutal and destabilized Phillip and Elizabeth's world is: Martha's a nice, normal person who wants a nice, normal life. And she seems like a ridiculous fool and complete patsy and might as well have "future murder victim" embroidered on her nice, normal officewear. Love hurts.

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX